Working Paper: The Second Month, Weeks 5-8, Today In 1918

lung samples, 1918

Week 5 (Days 29-36, Oct 6-13, 1918)

From bad to worse. There is always a worse, and there is always a worst. The worse you feel in real time, in the present, and the worst is best known in hindsight, looking back. No matter, the worse and worst is the stage with the most extreme point of trouble, problems, and difficulties. The bad comes with the worse.

For 1918’s influenza pandemic, the second month after the outbreak of influenza at Fort Devens, Massachusetts is the worst. By the end of Week 5, in mid-October, more than 800 people die in a single day in Philadelphia, to cite one of hundreds of examples of “worse.” Geographically, the worst is everywhere. Still, the most awful examples are where you expect them to be—around the places where influenza began in the first month (cities on the East Coast, foremost, also cities and military locations in the Midwest, and some emergence on the West and Gulf Coasts because of ocean transport). The loss of life worsens.

The worse of Week 5 introduces an interplay, a dance, if you will, between emotional opposites—horror and tragedy clasped hand-in-hand with honor and perseverance. Found in stories, anecdotes, and reports, every place where people and influenza are together produces scenes of unspeakable suffering and heartache (pervasive death, suicides, and so on) along with remarkable, inspirational endurance and courage (giving help, refusing to quit, sacrificing for others and for the future, and so on). It is a dance to sad music.

The worse also includes Warfluenza. To remind: Warfluenza is the confluence of 1918’s influenza with 1918’s most powerful issue of national American life, the World War. The American people don’t experience influenza by itself, apart from everything else. They experience it within their overall lives, daily comings-and-goings, and national consciousness. The World War and influenza collide and co-mingle to make “Warfluenza.”

Warfluenza’s biggest feature in Week 5 is denial. Many experts in positions of authority still deny that influenza is any different from the standard seasonal illness that everyone remembers from last year, the year before that, and on and on. No big deal. Rejected. Deflected. Denied. These experts have their own followers and audiences.

Week 6 (Days 37-43, Oct 14-20, 1918)

The worse worsens. State to state, deaths number in the thousands and cases number in the tens of thousands. Sunrise to sunset, the minutes and hours tick by and hundreds add to the totals. Amid brilliant autumn colors, the dead stack up.

Two responses emerge from the federal government. First, the Chief Executive—President Woodrow Wilson—does nothing. Second, Congress, led by the Speaker of the House of Representatives—a member of the President’s political party but an opponent of the President’s most important policy, the World War—does something small but real. Speaker James “Champ” Clark manipulates House rules to pass an influenza bill. The Senate approves as well. Lifting his pen and writing his name, Wilson signs the bill into law. More money is now available to pay for extra doctors to help fight influenza.

People cope where they are, as citizens and residents of villages, towns, cities, and states. They reshape church services and rituals, give up nearly all public gatherings of any kinds, and shut down favorite activities like sports. In very small pockets they still adapt a few pasttimes like horse racing and “automobiling” around influenza. These exceptions are rare. The actions meant to obstruct or slow down influenza define life on the ground. It is as localities and states that the hard work of coping is done.

Coping leads to hoping. A respected hospital in Philadelphia announces a discovery of an influenza treatment. People rush to use it, but effectiveness fizzles over the days. A short time later, the Mayo Institute in Rochester, Minnesota achieves a more lasting solution designed to help doctors stay healthy under the strain of influenza. The regimen will take months to make a difference.

Not so for Warfluenza. Fast, adaptable, changeable, Warfluenza takes on new forms to keep pace with the sickness. Woodrow Wilson meets with General Peyton March, commander of the US war effort in Europe. Wilson tentatively asks March about adjusting troop movements to avoid further unit weakening from influenza. March rejects the notion, then adds that soldiers who die from influenza are doing their duty, too. Wilson says nothing more about it, a silence he vastly prefers.

Lower down the military structure, rumors fly around East Coast encampments that German doctors and nurses are injecting the sickness into local American soldiers. These spies, the rumors go, are caught and executed. All false and wrong, though the rumors outrun the truth. A national investigation begins. Its object is finding the source of such demoralizing stories.

Week 7 (Days 44-50, Oct 21-27, 1918)

A crucial period and dynamic arrive in the seventh week. The timing may have extraordinary importance and so it bears repeating: this arrival occurs when the end of the second month comes into view.

In towns, counties, cities, and states two powerful forces begin pulling and straining in opposite directions. One force is the rising number of people who are uneasy, restless, and discomfited with influenza’s ongoing bans, rules, and prohibitions. They sense a different direction in the new upcoming month; they are getting ready to get out. The other force is the people who want to toughen and strengthen enforcement of these anti-influenza procedures. They envision the worst worsening over the next few or several days if even the slightest changes are made to the containment of daily life. This is a competition, a tug-of-war.

The competition occurs over a nation-wide field of sickness. No place is safe, no person is free, no group is beyond the possibility that the fatal illness will strike and kill. The sickness has warped people’s appearances—they now wear masks. The masks alter how people see and are seen, in day and at night, with effects good and bad depending on points of perspective. One thing is certain. Influenza has succeeded in changing the healthy and the stricken. The mask is the proof.

The dancing interplay between horror and perseverance hits hardest at the most vulnerable parts of American life. Rising to the challenge are leaders, especially among women. Lillian Wald is a national leader doing local work on behalf of New York City’s excluded immigrant families, while Beulah Martin, unknown and unsung, does much the same for African-Americans in the mountains of North Carolina. The worsening reveals the worst of the bad already existing. A searing event is when 372 African-American soldiers march from their quarters in Baltimore to bury unburied African-American victims of influenza. Only they will do this job. White Americans just don’t seem to get around to it.

Week 8 (Days 51-57, Oct 28-Nov 3, 1918)

The pressure ratchets up. An explosion seems inevitable as one side demands re-opening, re-starting, re-living and the other side pushes more heavily down—the danger requires shutdown, lockdown, meltdown. The tug-of-war of a week ago accelerates into a winner-take-all bloodsport.

A capstone moment that exemplifies the pressure is Halloween. Influenza ruins a cherished personal and community celebration and leaves only sacrifice and regret shared on a national scale. An innocence of celebration becomes an exercise in reality that no one imagined.

Perhaps in reaction, more disputes break out over where to draw the lines of re-opening and re-opened. Votes among experts, elected officials, and formal and informal leaders are close and contentious. “48 hours” becomes an abbreviated slogan of time for pro-openers who fix a date to renormalize. Anti-openers increase arrests and fines for people who are lax in obeying new rules. Whichever wins out, the act of renormalizing will bring as much blurring and gray as it does clarity and brightness.

Influenza rises in the more interior regions of the US that had not seen the sickness. Influenza begins to fall, slowly but perceptibly, in those places where it began. In Chicago, for example, the illness declines slightly, as crowds of African-American residents go to a park for a war film project and a southern Indiana hotel and resort advertises to entice wealthy Chicagolanders to French Lick for a long weekend of gambling, shopping, and parties.

An old date takes on new importance. The mid-term election is next week. Woodrow Wilson publicly transforms November 5th into his personal, national, global day of significance—he wants all Democrats to get to the polls to vote for Democratic congressional candidates. With a vibrant Democrat-controlled Congress, Wilson promises, he can build the international structure necessary to make this current conflict the “war that ends all wars.” Wilson’s inference is unmistakable. Regardless of any local issues—influenza, perhaps?—the American voter must vote Democratic in order to save the future.

Other voices can be heard, too. Here and there across the US, scattered people glance back at the dead-filled landscape of October and search for signs of improvement, betterment, and growth. One is a Montana college student in his junior year. He looks back at the worst and draws from it a future of confidence, optimism, and a can-do spirit. He sees renewed life in his adulthood. The other is a Missouri medical director in a religious organization. He looks back at the worst and draws from it a future where people of faith learn new lessons for curtailing sickness and disease. He sees repurposed callings and missions in a community of devotion.


…Our Warfluenza (Coronavirus + The Political World of Trump, Pro-Trump, and Anti-Trump) is as unpredictable as Coronavirus by itself…

Warfluenza will do things we regard as impossible or unthinkable now. For example, the degree to which political divisiveness and vitriol exists at this point is just a taste of what is to come. We may not be able to conceive of the level or intensity of such political tensions. Doesn’t matter. More will come. Louder, longer, meaner, more outlandish, more encompassing—all of it will happen. If such a prospect disturbs you, having a knowledge of Warfluenza derived from your knowledge of 1918 can help you prepare for the onslaught.

The following fill-in-the-blank rhetorical statement will be frequent:

“I can’t believe they____that.”

Believe that. Say that. Think that. Write that. Tweet that. Show that. Allow that. And on and on.

When you’re with others, keep alert for the use of this statement. When you hear it, call upon your patience, inclusion, and discernment. Check yourself as well; you and I aren’t any more immune from Warfluenza than from any physical illness. I especially say this because a world awaits after Coronavirus. You and I will have to co-exist with people who may have heard your and my utterance of the “I can’t believe they____that.” statement. The fewer times we express it, the more effectively we’ll work with a broader and diverse array of people after November 2020.

Warfluenza will produce its own events. Wilson changed the nature of the 1918 mid-term election when he called for voters to turn out and support Democratic candidates. As we will see, influenza lowered voter turnout, which led in part to Republican control of Congress, resulting in a sharp defeat of Wilson’s plans for a post-war world. In addition, the end of the World War sparked massive parades and celebrations in American cities. These event, in turn, led to a revival of influenza in the days and weeks after the World War ended. Warfluenza in 2020 will have its own events as well. This event or events will almost certainly occur alongside another wave of illness.

…an interesting amount of time coincided at the Week 7 or Day 50 mark…

It was right around the seven-week mark that at least a substantial portion of the population in 1918 began to strain at the restrictions placed on American life. Surprisingly, that’s about the same number of days—fifty—that Americans in 2020 grew uneasy over the continued closures of public and private life. From that point forward, the question wasn’t whether but when—on exactly what day would people be allowed to work and travel as they wished or, at least, as they were able to do in the circumstances. There might be something inherent in the American condition that produces a 50-day cultural allowance period. Note that for future use, including in your workplace and other spaces of leadership.

The 50-day frame serves another purpose for us. This is the border moment, the time when close/open debates pick up in intensity, the time when people try to grab onto definitions of policies and procedures to bring these definition to life, as it were. And the border moment is rife with loose, dangling, and often unraveling threads—the awkward new rules that allow people to return but with the experiences gained and lessons learned still in their minds. The new rules will be tested, refined, re-tested, and re-refined over and over. This is life on the border and it’s nowhere near as cleanly cast as we assume it will be.

A final thought on the border. If another wave of illness appears—and it will—this will have a context for the border point. Then, the possibility will arise of returning to closure or returning to modified closure. This retransit of return back to closure may prove quite challenging. Quite likely, the next wave of coronavirus will be more of an upheaval because of recrossing the border point rather than the actual fatalities of the illness.

…the worse and worst are no more than parts, and they do not control the future…

Legions of people across the United States stepped forward to help reduce the tragic suffering of influenza. They did that in the moment because they saw people in need. And in so doing, many of these moments either contained seeds for the future or were clear signs of the future itself. They were already working and thinking and acting to shape a future far different from the present difficulty and the present worst.

Such people didn’t take time to plan and conceptualize. The long-range wasn’t in their view. They extracted a sense of the future from the nature of their current efforts. They built upon the positive elements right in front of them. From caring, compassion, resourcefulness, endurance, collaboration, and a hundred other things they stitched together a way forward. And that way, that clearing, would serve its greatest value when the worst faded away. A path was there, ready to be taken. A bit rough and unfinished it may have been, but it was there all the same. The question will be if footsteps will be found along the unwalked road.

Your checklist…well, it’s really a questions-for-me-to-answer list…

>>Where am I most clearly seeing our Warfluenza? How do I act as a leader to help others pull back, even a little? What can I rely on to help me prepare for the likelihood that our internal divisions will get worse between now and November?

>>What is the most drastic and fundamental change for my followers to make in returning and renormalizing? What do I think will be their greatest challenge in facing another wave of coronavirus? Do we have a tug-of-war within our environment?

>>What about my actions in this immediate moment contain a particle or seed to build upon in the future as defined by fall, 2020? What have I seen my followers do that acts in a similar way?

Thanks for reading.